Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Knock Knock! Who's there? The police.

Another sign of the times. A Tory councillor in England made a joke at a public gathering which led to a summons by police who lectured him about homophobia and appropriate humour. What kind of a joke would warrant police intervention?

The question-and-answer session had started in unremarkable fashion.

As the 50 members of the public at the police liaison meeting were handed their electronic handsets to take part in a survey, an official told them: 'Let's start with an easy question to get us going.

'Press A if you're male or B if you're female.'

But it seems nothing is ever that simple. Someone asked: 'What if you're transgendered?'

'You could press A and B together,' quipped Conservative councillor Jonathan Yardley.

Not exactly incendiary humour, is it? If this is all it takes to get in trouble with the police, then free speech in England really is taking a battering.

Here is a more detailed description of what happened to the councillor:

He was then contacted by Tettenhall sergeant Mark Evans, who asked him to attend a meeting at the village’s police station with city centre Inspector John Smith.

Councillor Yardley said: “They put me through the mill and asked me to confirm what I’d said and told me that a complaint had been made and I could be prosecuted. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. They explained the legal process and what had happened and how the complaint had been made and they said I could be subject to a civil prosecution.”

How could this happen? I'm assuming (I could be wrong) that the councillor was threatened under "hate speech" legislation passed only last year:

The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 amended Part 3A of the Public Order Act 1986. The amended Part 3A adds, for England and Wales, the offence of inciting hatred on the ground of sexual orientation ...

In the circumstances of hatred based on religious belief or on sexual orientation, the relevant act (namely, words, behaviour, written material, or recordings, or programme) must be threatening and not just abusive or insulting.

If this is the relevant legislation, then consider how quickly it has been used as an instrument to drive a political agenda, rather than to deal with anything remotely "threatening". The legislation was only passed last year, but already it is apparently being used by the police to intimidate someone responding to a situation in a normal, light-hearted way.

Such laws are instruments of social engineering and should be repealed.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Feminists wrong on IPV

Katie Dunlop has contributed an article on IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) to the Melbourne Age. It could hardly be worse. She uses false statistics and a filtered version of reality to argue that murderous violence against women is the social norm.

She begins with this:

Domestic violence, family violence, violence against women, intimate partner violence: we definitely have a range of phrases for the abuse men inflict on women and children ...

So straight away it is assumed that domestic violence is male violence against women and children. The violence of women against children, men or other women is simply overlooked.

She follows with this:

Pity we don't use them to describe the murders we often see on our front pages — the kids driven into the dam or gassed in the car, the wife or girlfriend stabbed in her kitchen, thrown off a cliff or shot in scrubland. Aberrations? Love gone wrong? No. These instances of violence are just the tip of the iceberg. Intimate partner violence (IPV) is everywhere, even if you don't know it.

This is a filtering of reality. She provides a list of crimes committed by men against women but the crimes committed recently by women against men are left out. We then get the claim that violent murders of women are not aberrations and that IPV is everywhere. It is a social norm even if we don't know it.

Next come the false statistics:

More than a third of Australian women who have had a boyfriend or husband experience abuse. Most shockingly, IPV is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in women aged between 15 and 44.

The "1 in 3" claim has been going round since at least the early 1990s. Moira Rayner admitted at the time that it was "guesswork and should be dropped". Kate Gilmore defended the statistic not because it was true but because it was useful in drumming up support for feminist causes:

Fact is an elusive notion ... feminists have no more distorted the truth than any other advocates of disadvantaged groups fighting for public support.

It's difficult to give an exact figure for how many women experience domestic violence. The results vary according to the questions asked. Back in the 1990s, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 2.6% of women experienced some form of domestic violence in the course of a year, though the figure dropped to 1.3% for more severe forms of violence such as hitting. About half of these cases involved alcohol abuse.

As for domestic violence being the leading cause of injury and death for young women, that is simply a ridiculous claim. And yet it is a false statistic that crops up again and again in the Australian press.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has just released information on the top 10 causes of death for women according to age. In the 15 to 24 age group, the leading causes of death for women in 2007 were traffic accidents (62 deaths) and suicide (58 deaths). There were nine deaths from assault but it isn't specified how many were incidents of domestic violence.

So women were much more likely to have taken their own lives than to have been killed by a partner.

There were 372 women in the 15 to 24 age bracket who died in Australia in 2007. This means that assault in general was responsible for 2.4% of deaths. 2.4% is a very long way from being a leading cause of death. Remember too that there were approximately 1.4 million women in the 15 to 24 age bracket in Australia in 2007. So the chance of death from assault in general was very low (let alone assault from a partner). It hardly fits into the category of social norm.

And what of women in the 25 to 44 age bracket? Death from assault doesn't even figure in the ten leading causes of death. The greatest risk, as you might expect, came from suicide, car accidents, cancer and heart disease. (You can find the information from the ABS here by clicking on the first data cube and then selecting section 1.3.)

Having cited one incredible statistic, Katie Dunlop follows up with an even more unbelievable claim:

Our awareness of IPV in Australia is very poor. According to a recent Victorian study, many think that women abuse their partners as much as men (false: men are the perpetrators 98 per cent of the time)

Katie Dunlop doesn't seem to be aware of the university research on this issue. The academic studies I've seen have found that domestic violence is usually not initiated by the man alone.

One study, for instance, found that men initiate violence in only 15% of cases of IPV (with women initiating violence in 30% of cases and the violence being mutual in the remainder).

Another study conducted by American academics also found that women were about twice as likely to initiate violence as men. The researchers noted:

As expected from previous research with this and other community samples (Archer, 2000), differences were observed in the rates of male and female partner violence, with female violence occurring more frequently.

You can see, therefore, that Katie Dunlop's claim that men initiate violence in 98% of cases is wildly false.

Why bother to correct these kinds of feminist errors? The mistakes don't just happen by chance or by sloppy research. They are made because they fit a particular world view, one in which men are thought to act as a class to oppress women through acts of violence.

This is a tremendously damaging notion. If it were true, then violence against women really would be something more than an aberration. It would be a product of a social system and a traditional culture carried out by men as a class as a social norm.

Women would then have good reason to organise separately to defend themselves against men. Women would also have good reason to be resentful and suspicious in their relationships with men.

Men and women would no longer have mutual interests within a marriage, a family and a community, but would stand apart. Men would no longer be seen as making sacrifices on behalf of women but as having worked to oppress them. There would be an expectation that men needed to be urgently re-educated by women in a radical break with tradition.

So feminists do need to be challenged when they put out false information.

We should also make it known to young women that being in a relationship with a man is not the pathway into violence that feminists claim it to be.

Do feminists, for instance, ever let women know that they are much safer when partnered with a man than when living alone? Women are 2.5 times more likely to be assaulted when they are single. Being partnered with a man is, overall, a source of physical protection for women rather than a source of danger.

Nor do feminists let women know that there are identifiable causes of domestic violence. There are "stressors" such as alchohol abuse, unemployment and homelessness which greatly increase the risk of IPV. For instance, around 90% of cases of femicide (the killing of women) in Australia take place within a social underclass in which it is common for both the male and the female to be unemployed:

James and Carcach (1998) suggest that almost 85 per cent of victims, and a little over 90 per cent of offenders, belong to what can be described as an underclass in Australian society.

A woman who chooses to partner with a man who has stable employment, who does not abuse alcohol and who has a decent level of anger management is highly unlikely to be subject to domestic violence. Domestic violence does not occur in a random pattern "everywhere" as Katie Dunlop suggests. It is most definitely not a social norm amongst most social classes in Australia.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Moral divergence

What does it mean to be a good person? Lawrence Auster argues that conservatives recognise a good higher than man and can therefore treat this good as real and worthy even if men can't always live up to its standards.

Liberals see nothing higher than man and so, if individuals or a society claim to hold to a moral good but don't live up to it, assume that the traditional good itself is fake - that it is a lie to be discarded.

For liberals being a good person doesn't mean striving to live up to traditional moral standards but affirming a belief in diversity, tolerance, equality and so on. You become good through what you affirm.

This can make you morally smug for two reasons. First, you become good through affirming the right beliefs, and this is much more perfectible than attempting to meet moral standards in your behaviour. Second, the good is not something higher than you that you are striving toward; instead, it's something identical with your own self.

I've taken the trouble to condense Lawrence Auster's already concise argument, because it relates so well to a story recently in the news in Australia. Marcus Einfeld, a former Federal Court judge, has been jailed for two years for making false statements. It turns out that he has a history of petty deceit.

Journalist Andrew Bolt has written an article pointing out how morally smug Marcus Einfeld was as a liberal torchbearer and how he seems to refuse to recognise his own moral shortcomings:

Marcus Einfeld, the lying judge and human rights blowhard, is the perfect symbol of our time.

... Einfeld ... has for so long been a worshipped member of our new, secular priesthood ...

Some who have known him long say he is as he always seemed to me from afar - as sanctimonious as he is arrogant ...

... Yet his manifest private failings were thought so irrelevant by our culture makers that Einfeld was made not just a judge but the first head of the HRC and an official National Living Treasure. The media loved him.

Why? Because he was a great exemplar of the new morality - in which you are judged not by your own sins, but by how savagely you damn those of others.

So you show your goodness by going to a free concert to "raise awareness" of some cause that you angrily demand the go'mint fix while you just dance.

Or you tell honest lies as a journalist in a cause as "good" as global warming or the "stolen generations".

Or you are hailed as "selfless" for being a professional moralist as well-paid as was Einfeld, fighting as HRC boss for human rights at a salary now pegged at $260,000 a year.

It's what you say, not what you do. And in Einfeld's case, this perjurer, liar, and serial husband showed his goodness by denouncing Australians again and again in the modish way - as racists, xenophobes and heartless.

A sample of just one of his many, many denunciatory sermons: "Too many of us appear now to be so transfixed by fear and prejudice, often politically motivated and too easily spread by a very superficial media ..."

... And this allows him to be the most moral of modern men - a perfectly honest liar.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Twisty out of form?

I have to say, Twisty, that I'm a little disappointed. You have long been the most interesting of feminists as you are so fearless in drawing out the logic of liberal politics. No unprincipled exceptions for you. No concern to be pragmatic either. Pure theory applied to the lives of men and women.

And then you went and wrote a post on your "consent scheme". And showed what you're really about.

What is your consent scheme? You don't like the existing law in which a woman must prove that she did not consent to sex for a charge of rape to be upheld. You suggest the following alternative:

According to my scheme, women would abide in a persistent legal condition of not having given consent to sex. Conversely, men ... would abide in a persistent legal state of pre-rape.

Women can still have all the sex they want; if they adjudge that their dude hasn’t raped them, all they have to do is not call the cops.

But if, at any time during the course of the proceedings ... or if, in three hours or three days or, perhaps in the case of childhood abuse, in 13 years it begins to dawn on her that she has been badly used by an opportunistic predator, she has simply to make a call.

Presto! The dude is already a rapist, because, legally, consent never existed.

The cessation of rape would be immediate. Men would begin aligning their boinking protocols along non-barbaric lines in a hurry. It would suddenly be in their best interest to make damn sure that nothing in their behavior ... would cause their partner to believe she has been abused.

How to explain this? It does relate somewhat to patriarchy theory. This is the idea that society has been organised to uphold the unearned privilege of men as a class over oppressed women. Therefore violence against women is thought to be systemic: a form of social control enacted by men in general rather than a specific crime perpetrated by individual men.

If you think that rape is systemic, then you are more likely to favour the kind of radical proposal outlined by Twisty.

But this time I don't think it really has to do with intellectual principles taken to the nth degree. Twisty's proposal is "utopian" in another way: as a means of legalising the control of men by women. It is a feminist assertion of power over men.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Twisty should cast about for such a scheme. Traditionally women gained a measure of power in their relationships with men through marriage and family; a woman could ask things of a man who loved her and who was committed to his role as a husband.

For (self-described) spinster radical feminists like Twisty, though, this kind of leverage over men is not an option. They cannot make claims on men through personal relationships, so they have to use more formal means to assert power over men.

Twisty is none too subtle in her strategy; her scheme would create a tremendous fallout between the sexes. It would be yet another civilisational blow, something which won't worry Twisty as she identifies her society as being an immoral patriarchy.

Twisty, I would rather you kept writing according to your intellectual principles, no matter how misguided I hold those principles to be. It's a much more useful, interesting and admirable exercise than confessing to unwieldy ambitions for power and control over men.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A chameleon nation?

What should Australia's national identity be? Matthew Albert and Samah Hadid believe they have the answer. In a feature article in Melbourne's Age newspaper, they have called for Australia to become a chameleon nation.

Their argument runs briefly as follows. There are now a lot of ethnic minorities in Australia and therefore,

it is perplexing that our projection of Australian identity is built around stories that still have Paul Hogan-like Australians at their centre.

This is a quick and unsympathetic way to dismiss the older Anglo tradition in Australia. Samah Hadid represents a very recent wave of migrants who have really only arrived in numbers over the past decade. And yet she is already expressing impatience that Anglo-Australians aren't getting out of the way fast enough.

What this betrays is how little modernist intellectuals really care for cultural traditions. And if you think I'm wrong in this then read on a little further.

If Hadid and Albert don't appreciate the existing culture and identity and want it immediately replaced, then what do they propose putting in its place? To their credit, they are open and honest about their aims:

Australia needs an identity that the world recognises as being global, and therefore, like the world, multicultural. The new identity will make our diversity a high-profile asset. We need an identity of a chameleon nation ...

Culturally diverse societies are able to adapt more successfully to rapid global changes, including increasing global population mobility. Australia is increasingly becoming part of a global community. In the same way that G20 finance ministers and Central Bank governors committed themselves last Saturday to tackle national financial security by rejecting protectionism, so too should we reject protectionism concerning our national identity "security", which tends now to reflect a cliche.

Australians from culturally diverse backgrounds have contributed to Australia's entrepreneurial skills, bolstering our country's ability to trade and interact with other nations. Migrants have thereby contributed to Australia's economy and significantly broadened business opportunities. The line of business builders from Belarusian-born Sidney Myer to Czech-born Frank Lowy attests to this. This will continue. And, it should be at the centre of our national self-image.

Metaphors of the past will not suffice for a changing future. Australia should move away from aiming to be a melting pot or a mosaic. It should be, what we call, a chameleon nation. A chameleon nation adapts to fit in with its context.

It is a nation that draws on the full spectrum of its diversity to respond holistically and intelligently to global change. The chameleon nation we envision draws on, and builds all the differences it contains to ensure that Australia is a nation of the world and continues to contain the world within our nation. Our chameleon spirit can be manifested in the way we welcome migrants and refugees, and the way we accept changing demographics.

The chameleon spirit could make Australia's community of globally literate people its greatest asset and its multiculturalism a brand to sell on the global market. Our multiculturalism could be our marketing pitch, one to allow Australia to better adapt to emerging situations internally and externally, economically and socially ...

What a national identity! We are to proudly have a "chameleon spirit" which means adapting ourselves utterly to the needs of the global market. What a rank and empty technocratic vision is spelled out above. The real message is: you are not to have a stable identity at all, culture doesn't matter, it is proper to change your identity for the purposes of trade, and you are to be so open that you will come to perfectly represent the global elsewhere rather than something distinct of your own.

This is a long way from a real national identity. It is almost a way of telling us that there is to be no national identity. There will just be a global technocratic order in which culture doesn't count for much.

Even the Age cartoonist seems to recognise this. The cartoon drawn for the article shows a "Chameleoroo" - an old, jaded, money-grubbing creature - with its young progeny in the pouch hungering eagerly after money.

Is the cartoonist disappointed in what things have come to? That a national identity should be thought of in such spiritless, uncultured, technocratic and materialistic terms? Is this what he thought his liberal politics was going to lead to in the end?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Kasey's metaphorical baby

Kasey Edwards is thirty something and going through an existential crisis. She no longer finds her career fulfilling and she is looking for something more meaningful to commit to.

What about motherhood and family? This is not something she would have committed to as a younger woman. She was brought up, in a liberal, feminist society, to believe that motherhood was an inferior option, a "character flaw" as she describes it.

Which explains this passage in Kasey's book:

On the last day of high school my teacher asked everyone in the class what we saw ourselves doing in ten to fifteen years' time. When she came around to me I said, "Married with kids and a stay-at-home mother." The teacher and the class burst into laughter and so did I. It was obvious to everyone I was just being a smartarse ...

Later, a classmate confessed to me that she did actually want to be 'just' a mother. She looked ashamed and I looked indignant.

Not a good platform from which to launch into motherhood. However, Kasey does appear to gradually change her attitude. After meeting a woman who is dismissive of mothers, she writes,

I am shocked and slightly outraged at Karen's low opinion of motherhood, which makes me realise just how much I've changed in the last few months. I am ashamed to admit this, but twelve months ago I would have agreed with Karen's view on motherhood - a cop-out from the workforce, the loss of identity and the betrayal of the sisterhood ... I used to think that a pram was a symbol of no ambition, no status and a bleak future.

On page 189 of her book there appears to be a breakthrough:

I get into the car and instead of telling him how much I missed him, I say, "I want to have a baby." The words just pop out of my mouth as if they bypassed my brain. "I don't know where that came from," I say. "I swear, I have no idea why I just said that."

Chris smiles at me ... "I'm not surprised ... You'd make a great mother."

I am surprised how touched I am by the compliment and my eyes fill with tears.

She has finlly given herself permission, in her early 30s, to think about having a baby. However, even this is only a hesitant beginning. She notes at the end of the conversation with her boyfriend,

We agree to talk about it again in a year.

This seems a surprisingly long time to delay given her age. She is not unaware of the problems of older motherhood:

We are told all our lives that we need to do everything else first - get an education, establish ourselves professionally, buy property - but by the time we've done all that, our biological clocks have ticked. The older I get, the more I witness the heartbreak of women around me who are unable to get pregnant. And the harsh reality in many cases is that they just left it too late.

I've lost count of how many women I know who are undergoing IVF, or have tried it without success.

So why doesn't she commit herself to motherhood while she can? Unfortunately, she is still too strongly influenced by liberal notions of autonomy:

I'm prepared to accept that having kids could be one answer to being thirty-something and over it, but I don't want to accept that it is the answer. It seems so stiflingly predetermined to think that it doesn't matter who we are or what we have done with our lives up until now, we all have to breed in the end.

Stiflingly predetermined to be a mother. She has bought into liberal autonomy theory in which motherhood is thought to be a predetermined, biological outcome - a "biological destiny" - rather than a uniquely created life outcome.

Kasey also now believes that careerism is a predetermined life course for her, so she is no longer willing to commit to that either. So what does she opt for?

She decides to work part-time while writing a book. Writing is to be her baby:

Maybe I'm kidding myself, but I like to think that my friend Godfrey's metaphorical baby [being a writer] is an adequate substitute for a real one. Surely a metaphorical baby can still meet the needs that Erikson talks about, such as devoting ourselves to, and caring for, something ...

I decide to think more seriously about how I can devote myself to and nurture a writing 'baby'.

She rejects an offer from her company to pay her for writing if she works under their banner:

I'm not prepared to surrender editorial control of the book ... It won't be my baby ... I realise that I need more than just an opportunity to write; I also need autonomy. I want to have freedom in my life to do my own thing. And two days of freedom and autonomy are more important to me than two days of income.

All of which serves as a reminder of just how difficult it has become for intelligent, conscientious, middle-class Western women to have children. The ideological barriers have been raised very high. If autonomy and a uniquely created life path are the highest goods for you, then children won't be a priority - even if you have grown tired of the corporate grind.

One final point before saying good-bye to Kasey Edwards. One thing that struck me reading her book was the individualism of the culture she inhabits. Her colleagues are all looking for something to commit to, and those who are disenchanted with corporate values seem to only look to options such as work with international aid organisations.

I'm not sure this problem would have been so significant in earlier times. In a less individualistic culture the ordinary work we did was tied to something larger than our own momentary satisfactions.

Kasey Edwards does seem to have a glimmer of this when discussing one particular colleague:

Jamie has a purpose for what he does each day - to provide for his family. That means that he doesn't need to get innate enjoyment out of every single task at work because the bigger purpose - his family - is what makes working worthwhile.

She might have extended this thought. If a man was to think not just in terms of himself, but also in terms of his tradition, then he would also be connecting his everyday work to perpetuating a much larger, enduring communal entity. And if he recognised over and beyond himself the existence of a masculine "good", then in meeting his work commitments he would be connecting his own masculine self to a larger purpose.

There is, similarly, more to motherhood than just a biological destiny. A woman's heritage - of family, ancestry and nation - is perpetuated when she has children and raises them to successful adulthood. A woman also expresses her feminine identity - and connects this identity to a larger virtue - through qualities such as maternal love.

In place of this Kasey Edwards suggests a "project". Her own project has come to fruition and her metaphorical baby - her book - has been born. It's an achievement, but one that seems thinner to me than producing a human life.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A subversive twist

I've read some more of Kasey Edwards's book Thirty Something & Over It. In my last post I looked at the feminist aspects of the book. But there's more to it.

I've often criticised liberalism for limiting people to relatively trivial life aims. Liberalism limits us to those spheres of life which we can pursue as self-defining, autonomous individuals.

The most obvious areas in which we can seek fulfilment as an autonomous individual are careers, travel, education, shopping, entertainment and the various kinds of hedonistic pursuits.

Kasey Edwards was raised within a liberal culture. She therefore sought to define herself, and find meaning, primarily through career, money, dining out and retail therapy. It's clear that another plank of her life philosophy was a commitment to feminist politics: she was on the women's team battling it out with men in the workplace.

So what happened? She hasn't dropped the liberal intellectual framework. On the other hand, she has very much decided that the liberal life aims aren't enough. They don't provide an adequate source of meaning and fulfilment in life.

The book is a record of her efforts, as an intelligent and well-meaning woman, to battle her way through to an alternative.

It's not surprising that the liberal intellectual framework is still in place. People don't generally let go of an older justification for their life before a new one is ready to be put in its place.

In the first chapter, therefore, we are treated to a dose of liberal autonomy theory - but with a subversive twist. Ordinarily liberals argue that women who commit to motherhood are following a merely biological destiny - something predetermined rather than self-determined.

Kasey Edwards doesn't challenge the liberal idea that we should avoid what is predetermined. But it's not motherhood that she thinks of as being predetermined for her but careerism.

It all begins with Kasey's brother telling her,

"you need to experience a life that is outside the one that was prescribed for you."

He says that for our entire lives, both Emma and I have done exactly what was expected of us. We are overachieving 'good girls', and now we're bored with it. We've reached the point where we need to live our own lives, not the ones that were set out for us.

... What I've achieved to date has been like an inheritance. I inherited a life path as a result of my family and society. I went to university and studied business communication. I landed a job in public relations, moved on to a better job in online communication ... no matter how hard it got, there was always a predetermined course to follow.

I've always done what was expected of me - what my parents wanted, what my teachers wanted, what my bosses wanted. And society supported this path and reinforced my compliance ... When I stare into the face of my inheritance, it feels like contemplating a death sentence.

Kasey Edwards is trying to think her way out of her predicament still using the principles she was raised with. It is now careerism which is rejected as violating liberal autonomy by being predetermined. It's a reasonable argument at one level: for most young women the predetermined course these days would be the careerist one.

If this gets Kasey Edwards to the next stage I'm all for it. But it's not a helpful position in general. If we set out to self-determine by rejecting what we inherit, then every generation would have to set itself against what it was raised with. You would have a generation of careerist women followed by a generation of stay at home mothers in a continuing cycle.

What is inherited or predetermined has to be judged on its own merits. If Kasey Edwards has found that career status isn't sufficiently fulfilling, then maybe that's not because it was a predetermined path laid out for her by society, but because it really, objectively isn't meaningful - at least not just by itself.

There's another way that a liberal culture persists in Kasey Edwards's way of thinking. She spends much of the book assuming that she could put things right if only she found what she really wanted. If she knew the right desire to pursue and fulfil as an individual, then she would find meaning.

This kind of "right desire" or "authentic want" proves elusive. She undertakes a personality test to find out what would be the most appropriate career for her and the results show that she had chosen correctly in the first place - but without finding contentment.

(Her friend Emma also stays for a while within the sphere of individualistic liberal pursuits. She jettisons career ambitions in favour of hedonistic pursuits involving much alcohol and casual sex. But she gets sick, catches the HPV virus and has a cervical cancer scare.)

Kasey is perceptive enough though to begin to reach beyond the limits of liberalism. But it's a battle for her to make progress in accepting other sources of identity and meaning, such as those involving family. Her gradual transformation is an interesting one which I'll cover in a later post.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Privilege & resentment

What happens if you're raised to be a feminist but don't like the life aims that feminism has set for you?

Kasey Edwards is in this situation. She's a Melbourne woman in her early 30s who has written a frank account of her life in her latest book Thirty Something & Over It.

The basic scenario is straightforward: Kasey Edwards is a successful career woman who turns thirty and can no longer face the prospect of working.

Where it gets messy is that Kasey Edwards just can't let go of a feminist way of thinking in dealing with her situation.

For instance, Kasey Edwards makes it clear that she has succeeded in doing whatever she wanted to in her career, earning very large sums of money along the way. Even when she starts to give up and begins slacking off, she is still rewarded with positive work reviews, visits from corporate headhunters and large bonuses.

She opts out because she no longer believes that the grind of work is fulfilling and meaningful.

She interviews male colleagues who tell her that they don't find the work itself meaningful, but that they are committed to it to support their families and that they stay positive to make the most out of the situation.

In spite of all of this, she still writes a couple of chapters about how men have it easy in the workplace and that women are the victims of male power.

Here is some of her privilege:

I had everything I'd always wanted - a successful career and the lifestyle and assets to match ...

I equated success with money and leapfrogged from job to job with bigger and bigger pay cheques ...

In my fourth year, I was earning more than my parents combined ... People raise whole families on what I get as a bonus payment, yet I spend every cent I earn ... It isn't unusual for me to eat out all three meals in a day ... I've stopped looking at prices on the menu ... my friends are just the same. I recently went shopping with a friend who bought five handbags on impulse, which came to a grand total of $4000 ... the entire transaction took less than 15 minutes ...

Here is her presentation of the lot in life of her male colleagues:

Over a glass of wine I casually enquire, 'Jamie, do you ever feel like you don't want to work anymore? He looks at me bemused and, to my complete surprise, says, "All the time, mate."

He says he only works because he has to pay the mortgage and support his family ... he views working as a necessary part of life and therefore has resolved to make the best of it.

"There is no point in me moaning about having to go to work and making it miserable for myself and the people around me," he says. "So I make the most of it while I'm there and get fulfilment from other aspects of my life".

The difference between Jamie and me, and many of the other women I've spoken to, is that Jamie seems resigned to his fate of corporate drudgery and is just getting on with it. On the other hand, my sisters and I are not so willing to accept unfulfilling work as our lot in life. We are resisting it, resenting it and dreaming about alternatives.

You would think that all the above would be a reality check. Kasey Edwards achieved everything she wanted career-wise, was paid large sums of money but has opted out because she finds work itself unfulfilling. The men, meanwhile, buckle down to what she is opting out of in order to support their families.

But Kasey Edwards's feminism immediately springs back to life. She follows up with an attack on "male power" in the workplace, including this ugly quote from a friend:

I ask Emma why she thinks women seem more over it than men. "Because we don't have dicks," she says simply. "By the time we get to our thirties we've realised that a dick is far more valuable in the workplace than intellect, education or dedication. We'll never have the necessary equipment."

This comment is allowed to stand, despite the fact that the friend Emma thinks of her work as "high-stress, soulless and unsatisfying" and compensates by engaging in "a blur of binge drinking, all-night parties and casual sex". In her own mind, though, the problem is not with her or with the nature of work itself, but with something mysterious withheld from her as a woman by men. She refuses to give up on the belief that men are withholding something from her and that she therefore belongs to a victim class.

What's disturbing reading Kasey Edwards's book is that the men that she knows all seem prepared to support whatever it is that the women want to do, whether it involves paid work or not, but that in return she still sees men as the enemy, not at a personal level, but in terms of society.

And so you get comments like these:

If the sisterhood had the unity and loyalty of the gay movement I think we'd all be a lot better off ... if we banded together .. Why don't women realise that when we undermine each other we are hurting ourselves because the group that benefits from our actions is men? It's hard to blame men for having all the power when we give them even more of it ...

It just doesn't fit together. Kasey and her friends are opting out not because they were held back but because they got to the top and found it unfulfilling. And yet the feminist resentment survives, as does the view that men are privileged and have easy lives, as does the idea that political justice is about women banding together to fight men in the workplace.

If the corporate grind really is unfulfilling and meaningless, then why would Kasey Edwards call on women to band together to commit their lives to it, particularly when she and her friends have themselves decided to opt out? And why would she regard the men she leaves behind to shoulder the grind as living easy, privileged, lives?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Beyond the maze?

What is the difference between left and right?

Both start out with the ideal of an autonomous self-defining individual. So the mainstream left and right both share an underlying liberalism.

The difference relates to a second tier issue. If you think of society along liberal lines as being composed of millions of atomised, self-seeking individuals, then how do you successfully regulate society?

The right have looked to the role of the market. Individuals could act selfishly for their own profit and the hidden hand of the market would regulate outcomes to ensure both economic and social progress.

The left did not accept the priority given to economic man. They held an alternative ideal of social man, one in which society would be regulated in a more deliberate way by a class of experts/reformers/bureaucrats/officials/educators.

There is a strain of thought amongst left-liberals, therefore, which is sceptical of capitalism, markets and the pursuit of material gain.

But here's the issue. If you accept the underlying liberal ideal, that there should be no impediments to the self-defining individual, then human aims are limited to what we can determine for ourselves as individuals. The obvious things that we do get to choose at an individual level are careers, restaurants and dining, consumer purchases, travel and fashion.

But these aims won't seem appealing to left-liberals sceptical about the role of the market. They all seem to show the dominance of market values; they place us either as producers (careers) or consumers (shopping, restaurants, fashion).

So there is a type of left-liberal who is destined to remain discontent. These left-liberals are stuck with the underlying ideal of the self-defining individual, but they can't easily accept the limited materialistic and individualistic aims which follow on from this ideal.

Richard Eckersley, a director of research company Australia 21, appears to be one political thinker caught in this dilemma. He recently wrote an article for a magazine called Melbourne's Child (Beyond the Maze of Materialism, January 2009).

He writes, reasonably enough, about the problems facing young Australians today that,

While young people are materially better off, and have more opportunities for education, leisure and travel than ever before, social changes have made it harder for them to develop a strong sense of identity, purpose, belonging and security; to know who they are, where they belong, what they want from life, and what is expected of them; in short, to feel that life is deeply meaningful and worthwhile. Relational and existential issues, not material hardship and disadvantage, lie at the heart of youth problems today.

What is to blame? He identifies two problems. The first is materialism:

Materialism (giving importance or priority to money and possessions), research suggests, breeds not happiness but dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, anger, isolation and alienation. People for whom "extrinsic goals" such as fame, fortune and glamour are a priority in life tend to experience more anxiety and depression and lower overall wellbeing ... Consumer culture both fosters and exploits the restless, insatiable expectation that there must be more to life.

Although I agree, if this was all that Richard Eckersley had to say it would be nothing new. It's not uncommon for those on the left to criticise materialism and consumerism.

He ventures further, though, by making a limited criticism of individualism. It's interesting for him to do this, as he veers close to suggesting that the underlying principle of liberalism itself is a factor in what's wrong. But he's much too tentative to get anywhere useful. He starts out by indicating his general support for individualism:

Individualism (the relaxation of social ties and regulation and the belief that people are independent of each other) is supposed to be about freeing us to live the lives we want. Historically, it has been a progressive force, loosening the chains of religious dogma, class oppression and gender and ethnic discrimination, and so on associated with the liberation of human potential.

Having made all these claims on behalf of the liberal autonomy principle, he isn't left with much room to criticise it, even if he seems to sense that it's part of the problem:

However, individualism is a two-edged sword: as sociologists have noted, the freedom we now have is both exhilarating and disturbing, and with new opportunities for personal experience and growth also comes the anxiety of social dislocation and isolation.

The costs of individualism include ... a heightened sense of risk, uncertainty and insecurity; a lack of clear frames of reference ... a surfeit or excess of freedom and choice ....

This doesn't get us anywhere. Criticising individualism for giving us too much freedom and choice is like criticising a woman for being excessively pretty. It's not exactly a complaint which cuts deeply.

There are much more significant charges which can be levelled against liberal individualism. We are told by Richard Eckersley that young people have been left without a strong sense of identity, purpose and belonging. But how could they possibly develop these qualities when liberal individualism forbids so much?

For example, individuals once identified with their own ethnic group. They had a longstanding tradition of their own to belong to and to contribute to, which helped give meaning to their lives. Identity, purpose, belonging. But liberal individualism has made this illegitimate. If we have to be self-defined as an autonomous individual, then how can we accept a traditional, inherited identity that we are born into? Liberal individualism won't permit it, and Richard Eckersely himself tells us in a passage quoted above that by not discriminating in terms of ethnicity we are loosening people from chains and releasing their full potential.

It's the same when it comes to gender. This is another of the chains which Richard Eckersley claims has been broken by individualism, thereby allowing us to live the lives we want. But historically our manhood or womanhood was significant in forming our identity and providing some part of our purpose in life. But our sex is not something we choose for ourselves, it is a "biological destiny" and therefore it is once again disallowed by liberal individualism.

Richard Eckersley isn't able, as a liberal, to go far enough in his critique of modern society. He writes,

one of the most important and growing costs of the modern way of life is, I have argued, "cultural fraud": the promotion of images and ideals of "the good life" that serve the economy but do not meet psychological needs ...

He can go far, as a left-liberal, in attacking the ideal of economic man in favour of social man and he can even recognise that there has been fallout from liberal individualism. But he skates on the surface when it comes to recognising the effect of liberal individualism on identity, purpose and belonging.

And so all he suggests in the end as remedies are very general left-liberal bureacratic responses: reorienting healthcare to a "preventative, social model"; reorienting education toward "increasing young people's understanding of themselves"; and enforcing the UN Charter of Human Rights of the Child, such as the right "to protection from harmful influences".

Unfortunately, I don't think Richards Eckersley has taken us "beyond the maze of materialism". He hasn't dealt sufficiently with the ruling principles of our society, those which make many significant life aims illegitimate.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

A liberal elitist cuts loose

Many readers will know the TV show Wife Swap. Two mothers from different backgrounds switch families for a period of time.

A recent episode of the American programme features a San Francisco liberal couple. The woman introduces herself as a certified hypnotherapist, life coach and destination coach. She is not a patriot. When asked why she is not a proud American she explains,

Because of the chance that I was born on American soil. I mean that's just the way it was. I had nothing to do with it personally.

I've heard this kind of line before. It relates to the idea that what counts is that we self-determine who we are and what we do. Therefore whatever aspect of our lives is an "accident of birth" is thought not to matter.

It's a position that's difficult to hold to consistently. After all, our IQ and many of our personality traits are influenced by heredity and are therefore an accident of birth, as also is the family upbringing we experience.

So our San Fransico couple should also reject a sense of pride in their own intelligence, education and work ethic as these are a product, to a significant degree, of conditions we are born into. But they don't - they are proud of these qualities to the point of arrogance.

It's actually more logical to recognise the debt we owe to generations past for the positive qualities that we do inherit. Past generations have battled through to recognise and perpetuate ideals in culture and personality. We do rest on these achievements, even if we inherit them rather than creating them for ourselves. So pride in a larger entity does make sense - more so than the belief that we are self-created as individuals.

But I digress. The San Francisco woman might be a bit flaky, and she appears to spend little time with her own children ("If I'm too much with the kids, it doesn't suit my personality"), but she comes across in the clips as a basically nice person.

It is the San Francisco man, Stephen Fowler, who really takes the cake. He is paired with an unsophisticated but decent and well-meaning Midwestern woman. He treats her with absolute contempt and disdain. He calls her a dumb redneck and congratulates her for using big words. He laughs when he tells her she is overweight and undereducated. And he disparages her simply for living in the Midwest.

This arrogant elitism might appear to be a strange double-standard. After all, Stephen Fowler as a liberal is supposed to be strongly into equality. How can you have an egalitarian elitism?

Perhaps the answer lies in what liberals understand by equality. Usually it is thought to mean an equal freedom to follow our own unhindered will. Of course, this doesn't work too well when you're a parent. Stephen Fowler, when watching his young son practise fencing, says proudly to the camera "I'm not going to force him to do it". But it's merely pretence. The son instantly objects "I don't want to do it and you say I have to do it."

Stephen Fowler is a more coercive father than most. He wakes his son up at night because the son forgot to complete some maths sums. The children don't have friends over and live a regimented life.

But it's difficult for a liberal to admit that they are being coercive. After all, liberals hold that we become fully human when we are free to follow our own will unhindered. To coerce others means denying their humanity: their equal human rights.

So it's not surprising that an aggressive liberal like Stephen Fowler should pretend that he is not coercing his son, when that is exactly what he is doing (for better or worse).

Nor is it surprising that, as an aggressive liberal, he should follow through with the logic of his position and disrespect as people those whose lives he believes are unacceptable and worthy of coercion.

(There's a terrific post on this aspect of liberalism, very much worth reading, here.)

Finally, it strikes me watching the YouTube clips that Stephen Fowler believes himself to be highly cultivated and therefore superior. I think it a greater blessing, though, to be fully natured. I would be more impressed by Stephen Fowler feeling a connection and a loyalty to his own tradition, rather than by his university qualifications and his good vocabulary.

The first, and most eye opening, of the YouTube clips is below:

The follow-up is here: